While I’m not the biggest fan of Kaya Oakes (she probably hasn’t read my book, and someone suggested it to her; but then, that’s true of lots of people), she has a very prescient critique of the Benedict Option:
In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, “On the Reception of Guests,” that monastic communities should “let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of LGBTQ members.
Evangelicals, who largely lean and vote conservative, might seem to be a natural audience for Dreher’s work, which may be why the editors of Christianity Today invited him to contribute a cover story. They also asked four evangelical writers to respond to Dreher’s story and the question of whether evangelicals should pursue “strategic withdrawal.” Three of these evangelicals are highly critical of the Benedict Option. David Fitch, a professor of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, writes that evangelicals cannot “make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.”
Oakes is right — there is a tremendous lack of hospitality to the stranger, the other, the enemy, in the Benedict Option. (Anyone needing hints for how to encounter enemies should look at the Elijah and Elisha stores.)
I am generally supportive of something akin to the Benedict Option, and I believe the American church takes its Americanness far more seriously than it does being church, and has for some time been incapable of forming real devoted disciples or offering an alternative vision of life together because of that commitment to America. Except by accident.
But I sense, from reading many of the comments on Dreher’s blog (and some of what he writes himself), that Dreher is frightened of the world, that it will take the faith of his children, and their children, and make that faith illegible or impossible. Much of what gets written in comment, about either the Benedict Option or about technology, is usually about protecting children from the corrupting influences of the world.
(Because of my work with Psalm 10 Ministries, I’ve become very aware that this desire to protect “good kids” also creates a category of “bad kids” who merit no protection, because they are irredeemable and their lives have no real value.)
In this, my fear is the Benedict Option will become another reactionary, bourgeois project.
Oakes is also right in saying that the world that comes to the church in search of welcome is non-Christian, and has been wounded — by the church, the world, modernity, and all that comes with the buying and selling of bodies and lives as mere commodities. People wounded by the false promises of self-exploitation, that their lives are theirs and theirs alone to make as they will absent any relationship with God.
My fear is that Dreher and many other religious conservatives who see and appreciate a real problem with the church and its inability to form faithful disciples are, at the same time, so afraid of the world they unwilling to encounter it without judging it and condemning it. (Again, Elijah/Elisha stories for guidance here.) They miss the role the church played in ordering and ruling the world, and won’t be the gracious presence of God in a world that, while it may not believe, on some level often understands it has sinned and fallen short and that God redeems us in and from our sin.
That said, the tolerance and hospitality of liberal Christians is frequently more for abstract categories of human beings — people who can be labeled in one way or another — than it is for actual people. Oakes’ concern is, honestly, another rigid and brittle form of bourgeois piety. It is welcoming only if you are already like the people doing the welcoming or identifiable in a way those who welcome can easily deal with. It knows less and less how to welcome people on the basis of personality, on those differences well all come with as human beings.
I have found a mixed welcome at best in liberal churches, and very poor hospitality at most. (I don’t try with conservative churches because I know I don’t belong there either.) It may be that church leaders are too overworked and risk averse, or far too ideologically oriented in their understanding of who needs to be welcomed (and who doesn’t), and that pastors and congregants are so emotionally worn out at the end (or beginning) of a week that they want comfort and ease, don’t want to have to do anything hard or be with anyone they find troubling when they show up for those 60 or 90 minutes. As our churches increasingly sort themselves out along political lines, it is likely going to be increasingly difficult for congregations and leaders to take risks welcoming strangers or real difference into their midst. Which is a terrible pity. That kind of risk is what the church exists for.
So, in this, the Benedict Option merely mirrors the rest of the church. Which is a pity, but not surprising. That Oakes’ understanding of hospitality in her essay is almost entirely limited to women leaders and queer folks is also not surprising — it’s how she understands welcoming and acceptance, and my guess it constrains that understanding. I suspect I wouldn’t be welcomed at Oakes’ church, would not receive the kind of hospitality she quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict, mostly because they wouldn’t know how, and they’d likely look at me and decide I’m not a stranger who needs or deserves hospitality.